LeBron James vs. the Boston Celtics. That's the way this titanic series between James' Miami Heat and his pesky rival will be cast. After all, they'll say, James is the one that fled Cleveland to give himself a pair of superstar teammates in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. James is the one who announced said decision to the world and mocked everything his biggest rival was about. James is the one that has yet to beat the Celtics in a seven-game series, losing once as an underdog and once as a heavy favorite.
It's a storyline everyone understands. When you put it in those terms, even Middle America can get amped. If James can tilt the scales this much in his favor and still come up short against the Celtics, so it goes, then what has he really accomplished?
Of course, as any self-respecting basketball fan will tell you, it's a team game. LeBron cannot beat a team as powerful as the Celtics all by himself. He will need his teammates to be on top of their games if they want to advance past the very big lunch the Celtics represent. In particular, he needs one high-profile teammate to get his game together and shake off his season struggles against the Celtics.
That man, ironically, is Dwyane Wade.
Wade's issues against the Celtics this season are well-documented, but are worth reviewing. In the first game of the season, Wade shot 4-16 and had six turnovers in a Miami loss. In the second game of the year between the two teams, back on November 11, Wade shot 2-12 with six turnovers and just eight points. He "improved" to 6-17 shooting and 16 points in the February 13 loss, then closed the year with a 4-12 performance in the Heat's blowout win on April 10. Those are bad numbers for anyone. Those are particularly bad numbers for Dwyane Wade.
Just look at how far off those numbers are from his numbers against any other team.
(click to enlarge. Via NBA.com's Stats Cube).
Red refers to any stat that is at least 10 percent below its normal level. As you can see, there is a ton of red. You can explain some of Wade's performance in the two November games on his wrist injury that bothered him in the preseason, but that still leaves his mediocre late-season performance in the picture. Also, Wade was pretty decent with the wrist injury against other teams, so it's not just the wrist.
What's the issue, then? A lot of it has to do with the man lining up against Wade. Ray Allen has been fantastic in the team's four games this year, particularly scoring-wise. Taking a look at his StatsCube page, there's a bit of red, but it's mostly in non-scoring categories and plus/minus data that's pretty noisy over a small four-game sample. In the scoring categories, Allen is having a field day.
Allen's free throws are down, but there's a simple reason: Wade is letting him get wide open. Wade is not adept at chasing anyone around a series of screens, much less the best player in the league at doing that. So far, having him do all of that has had a two-fold effect on his game. First and foremost, he's clearly failing. Second, and most importantly, all that work is sapping his energy on offense and making him less effective. Not only is his physical energy down, but his mental energy is too. When the body gets fatigued, the mind usually follows. He's not mentally alert enough to be patient with Miami's sets and cut to open space off the ball when James has it. Ultimately, Miami's offense becomes predictable as a result, and Boston is able to load up on it.
That has got to change if the Heat want to advance in the playoffs. A coaching adjustment is one way to solve the issue. Erik Spoelstra could go to a short-term solution and put Wade on Rajon Rondo instead, allowing Wade to roam more on defense and having Mario Chalmers chase Allen through the screens. The only problem is that covering Rondo can require a lot of energy too, especially in transition. Still, that's one option that I would consider.
The other option is more fundamental, and probably a better one. To put it simply, Wade needs to suck it up. He needs to make the sacrifices, work his butt off on both ends and not allow fatigue to set in. He needs to stay attached to Allen's hip and take the punishment that comes with that (though there will be less punishment if Shaquille O'Neal can't play). On offense, he needs to cut forcefully and work to get easy baskets in transition instead of floating and making it easy for the Celtics to load up on him and James. This is a lot to ask of one player, but we ask it of James, and Wade is arguably as accomplished as a superstar. I think it's fair to ask it of Wade too.
James will be the fall boy if the Heat lose, and I get why. But the truth of the matter is, barring a mental collapse like we saw in Game 5 last year, James will get his numbers and have his usual impact. It's Wade that we should be less certain about. If Wade picks it up, Miami should win easily. If he continues to lose his matchup with Ray Allen, the Heat are doomed.
Ironically, the success of "The Decision" will depend on the one star who didn't leave in free agency.